“War. War never changes.
The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower.
But war never changes.” – Fallout
Art of War is a highly ambitious and admirable project headed by Petros over at Booknest, which it’s fair to say is one of the pillars of the online fantasy community. Not only did Petros wrangle 40 high quality fantasy authors into providing short stories based on the theme of war, but all profits go to Doctors Without Borders and frankly I was on board from the get go for that reason. But if you need more, you’re in luck. Because there is more, and plenty of it.
From the theme alone, you might expect that Grimdark fans in particular will be very happy with this collection, and you would be correct. But the thing that surprised and delighted me was that there was also such an absurd amount of creativity, and hope. There are yarns about outcasts who find acceptance, tales that touch on class struggles and stories of heart, fairy tales, fraternal love and incredible beauty. There’s a story written from the perspective of a piece of metal that made my heart ache. Helen of Troy sends her shitty husband to the goddamn burn unit in the most glorious fashion. A cowardly fraud pulls off a piece of tactical genius completely by accident and grows so much by the end that I came to love him.
It’s all here.
That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional weak entry. But as anthologies go? It’s a strong one. There were only a handful that didn’t speak to me, and I had a very hard time picking my ten favorites for this review. But here they are.
Dear Menelaus by Laura M. Hughes
Short and sweet, Helen of Troy sends a letter to Menelaus excoriating him not only for his decision to invade Troy, but for using her as an excuse to do so. Her perspective is absolutely delightful and she’s snarky as shit. Hughes is a fantastic writer of short stories (see Danse Macabre if you need any convincing) and this is no exception.
This War of Ours by Timandra Whitecastle
An incredibly impactful, emotional tale about a family on the run from wildcat soldiers. Told from the perspective of the eldest child, it begins with a list of the things that she has lost as a result of war and only grows more heartbreaking from there. To pack this much punch into a standalone story of such short length takes incredible skill and I’ll be looking out for more of her work in future.
The Fox and the Bowman by Sebastien de Castell
Whoa. Seriously. This one was absolutely amazing. Featuring Reynard the Fox, a nuanced tale about the nature of revenge that stays true to Reynard’s nature as a trickster, but also keeps him relatable. I have heard great things about de Castell’s work for years but I believe this will be the catalyst for me finally seeking out his work.
Misplaced Heroism by Andrew Rowe
Oh, yeah. Did I mention that some of these stories were also fun? Anyone who has read my review of Sufficiently Advanced Magic shouldn’t be surprised to see this one in my top ten, and Rowe is on form here. Not only does he poke fun at fantasy tropes, but he gives us a hearty wink as he does so. It’s an amusing and light-hearted story which provides some much needed levity, and the occasional funny twist.
Grannit by JP Ashman
A charming young boy goes to war and wins the favor of his liege lord through sheer force of personality. There’s fraternal love, loss, and unshakable loyalty over the years. Genuinely a lovely uplifting piece about good people and how the class divide can be overcome. Warm fuzzies, I loved it.
The Feather and the Paw by Benedict Patrick
My favorite story of the anthology. It’s a morality fable that would be right at home in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Those of you who grew up on Jim Henson’s The Storyteller should feel that you’re in familiar territory here. The Lionfolk, under their King Reoric, decide to invade the forest of The Magpie King, who repeatedly warns them away. But his warnings are more than they appear, and his sorrow when King Reoric advances into his territory is not necessarily for himself and his people. Fantastic stuff.
Good Steel by Zachary Barnes
This was an amazingly creative entry and I absolutely loved it. A piece of steel is fashioned into a hoe belonging to a farmer. It has feelings, memory and senses. It sounds weird but it’s deeply compelling and if you had told me I’d feel shitty for a piece of metal when I started out I’d have laughed at you, but here we are!
The Undying Lands by Michael R. Fletcher
This was one of the darker stories that I really enjoyed – Fayad is pretty much fucked. She’s been taken prisoner because she stabbed a guy who groped her, except it turns out the guy was rich and important. Also he died from the injuries she inflicted.
Now she’s being forced into gladiatorial combat, and she has to kill 10 people in order to be freed. Except she’s only ever killed that one guy, by accident. And she’s been equipped with a rusty blade. And her opponent? He only has one kill to go.
Shortblade by Brandon Draga
Oh my god this one had so much heart and warmth and pluckiness, I just adored it. A Halfling with a deep sense of duty serves the city watch, since he’s unable to serve in the army. He catches wind of a conspiracy and together with his father he seeks to do everything he can for his people despite their dismissal of him. It’s just so goddamn heartwarming, you guys. It certainly bumped Brandon up my ‘authors to watch’ list.
The Hero of Aral Pass by Mark Lawrence
An incredible end to an incredible anthology. Mark’s story is full of wry humor, poking fun at legends versus reality and it’s absolutely jammed with memorable, laugh-out-loud lines. Our protagonist is a spoiled, cowardly princeling who deeply resents being forced to earn his title and position and pulls off a feat of tactical mastery completely by accident. Perfect.
Art of War is available now!